How to Identify a Red-Tailed Hawk
Which hawk are you seeing? Here's how to tell if your bird is an adult or juvenile red-tailed hawk. Learn about their sounds, range and more.
Is That Hawk a Red-Tailed Hawk?
Every birder knows it—hawks are some of the trickiest birds to identify. Sure, it’s almost always obvious when you’ve seen a hawk. But which hawk? Red-tailed hawks are widespread across most of the United States, so there’s a good chance the big bird of prey you’ve spotted is a red-tailed hawk. Here’s how to know for sure.
Red-Tailed Hawk Field Marks and Features
Four talons on each foot capture and hold prey. And like other hawks, red-taileds have a sharp, curved bill. This allows them to easily tear apart their prey. (Here’s which foods hawks eat.)
Their large, deep eyes provide excellent vision and are typically dark-colored. In the case of a juvenile red-tailed hawk, birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman note that the eyes are yellow.
There’s plenty of bulk to this hawk’s stature, so you might assume it’s a heavy bird. But you would be wrong. Despite its height of 2 feet and its 4-foot wingspan, it weighs less than 3 pounds.
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Red-Tailed Hawk Plumage
Identifying red-taileds based on plumage can be tough. The Kaufmans note there are many different plumage variations among red-tailed hawks, with a majority of the birds having white or light-colored chests. Others, however, have reddish brown or almost black underparts.
In the case of a “typical” red-tailed hawk, the bird sports dark brown feathers on its back, face and wings, and a light-colored belly streaked with brown feathers.
The Kaufmans say reddish red-tails are referred to as “rufous morphs,” and they tend to live in the West. On these birds, it’s harder to see tail color.
Here’s how to identify a Cooper’s hawk vs a sharp-shinned hawk.
Do All Red-Tailed Hawks Have Red Tails?
A surefire way to tell an adult red-tailed from a juvenile is to look at its tail. Adults feature red feathers on their tails, while juveniles’ tails are a darker brown.
The Kaufmans explain that the younger birds don’t show reddish tail feathers until they are at least a year old. Until then, their tail feathers are brown with narrow, darker bars.
Learn how to identify a Swainson’s hawk.
Red-Tailed Hawk Diet
Surprisingly, smaller birds might be more tolerant of a red-tailed hawk’s presence than other birds of prey. The Kaufmans mention that unlike Cooper’s hawks or peregrine falcons, red-taileds aren’t usually fast enough to catch a bird. They feed primarily on rodents and small mammals.
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Habitat and Range
These hawks like to hang out perched along roadsides; they have a habit of soaring with barely a flap of their wings. They’re commonly found in open country, but they’ve moved into cities and suburbs in recent years.
They can be spotted year-round in most of the U.S. In the far north and into Canada, you’re most likely to only see them in the summer breeding season.
Did you know: the American kestrel is the smallest falcon in the U.S.
Sounds and Call
Listen for a high-pitched shrill sounding call to locate these birds of prey. This hawk probably sounds familiar, as its scream-like calls are often featured as nature sound effects in TV shows and movies.
“I heard the undeniable screech of a red-tailed hawk while I was out watering my flowers one early summer morning. It didn’t take me long to locate this beautiful noisy creature sitting majestically on the highest peak of my neighbor’s roof. I was lucky to snap a shot as the hawk took off and flew away,” says reader Carol Holliday.
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These birds form typically mate for life. They nest in late winter or early spring, most often at the tops of trees. The female lays one to five eggs, which both parents incubate for around a month.
Fledglings leave the nest approximately six or seven weeks after hatching but remain close-by their parents for a few weeks longer. Young birds may fall victim to great horned owls.
Next, discover why crows chase hawks.